An Unlikely Union

The Love-Hate Story of New York's Irish and Italians

368 pages

July, 2015

ISBN: 9781479871308



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Paul Moses is Professor of Journalism at Brooklyn College/CUNY and former city editor of Newsday, where he was the lead writer for a team that won the Pulitzer Prize.His book The Saint and the Sultan won the 2010 Catholic Press Association award for best history book.

All books by Paul Moses

An Unlikely Union tells the dramatic story of how two of America’s largest ethnic groups learned to love and laugh with each other after decades of animosity.
They came from the poorest parts of Ireland and Italy and met as rivals on the sidewalks of New York. Beginning in the nineteenth century, the Irish and Italians clashed in the Catholic Church, on the waterfront, at construction sites, and in the streets. Then they made peace through romance, marrying each other on a large scale in the years after World War II.

The vibrant cast of characters features saints such as Mother Frances X. Cabrini, who stood up to the Irish American archbishop of New York when he tried to send her back to Italy, and sinners like Al Capone, who left his Irish wife home the night he shot it out with Brooklyn’s Irish mob. The book also highlights the torrid love affair between radical labor organizers Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Carlo Tresca; the alliance between Italian American gangster Paul Kelly and Tammany’s “Big Tim” Sullivan; heroic detective Joseph Petrosino’s struggle to be accepted in the Irish-run NYPD; and the competition between Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby to become the country’s top male vocalist. 

In this engaging history of the Irish and Italians, veteran New York City journalist and professor Paul Moses offers a classic American story of competition, cooperation, and resilience. At a time of renewed fear of immigrants, An Unlikely Union reminds us that Americans are able to absorb tremendous social change and conflict—and come out the better for it. 


  • "Enlightening and entertaining...Moses offers emblematic, often fascinating tales, including the 'Irish-Italian love story' of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Carlo Tresca, the 'spectacular achievements' of NYPD officer Joseph (Giuseppe) Petrosino, and Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby's relationship."

    Publishers Weekly

  • "In this lively history of the clashes, compromises, and eventual bonding between two feisty immigrant groups, Moses looks at Irish and Italian expressions of religion, social customs, and family life; access to political power; competition for jobs; and cultural forces that shaped their images... A brisk, well-researched look at a significant part of New York's boisterous past."

    Kirkus Reviews

  • "In An Unlikely Union, Paul Moses alluringly explores how the two groups assimilated from separate tracks and on occasion inevitably collided."

    New York Times

  • "For all their avowed differences, the Irish and Italians gradually came together.  Moses argues convincingly that once the two groups mingled in churches, schools and other public realms, and started to share the same set of cultural norms, tensions eased.  It is partly a story of assimilation, and partly a story of rising up the economic ladder."


  • "In An Unlikely Union, Moses has crafted a book worthy of its mighty subject.

    Irish Voice

  • "A splendid array of characters passes through these fast-turning pages. They include saints—literally, in the case of Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini, who stood up to New York’s archbishop in 1889 and was canonized a half-century later. And there are sinners, among them Al Capone, who murdered an Irish mob leader in Brooklyn and was an odd match for his loving Irish wife, Mae."


  • "Award-winning author and Brooklynite Paul Moses is back with a historic yet dazzling story on the complex relationship between New York's Irish and Italians."

    Brooklyn Eagle

  • "Author Paul Moses revisits the days when Italian immigrants first arrived in the United States and settled in New York City amidst the Irish who came before them.  The eventual union both ethnicities formed did not come easily."

    Italian American

  • "A delightful book, part academic and part journalistic."

    Italian American Review

  • “This is an informative and entertaining book that is thoroughly researched and beautifully written”

    Catholic Historical Review

  • An Unlikely Union is a welcome and magisterial account of the evolving and  improving relationship between two important immigrant groups in New York City. Moses's smooth and engaging prose carries the reader from encounters where Irish mothers encouraged their children to throw bricks at Italian immigrants to the point where the 'Irish and Italians became the two most intermarried ethnic groups in America'. The arguments are supported by archival sources, secondary literature, and interviews. The ideas presented are novel and compelling and will be of interest to a wide range of scholars –historians, sociologists, theologians, immigration scholars, etc. Most important, however, Moses provides a narrative that is accessible and engaging to an audience outside of academia.”

    American Catholic Studies

  • “Moses has written an irresistible history of how the Irish and Italians fought through violent differences to find common ground.  He provides riveting accounts of how the Irish and Italians collided in the arenas of work and entertainment, in New York politics and law enforcement, and even in organized crime as the ‘Black Hand’ challenged the ‘White Hand.’”

    New York Irish History

  • “Readers will discover much in An Unlikely Union that’s news to them and will be intrigued by what they find on each absorbing page.  After reading about the police detectives, union leaders, nuns, and mobsters at the center of ancient Irish-Italian conflicts, readers will be left to ponder their own family histories.”

    U.S. Catholic

  • “The author’s engaging thesis is built with historical research, archival records, photographs, and personal narratives.  Recommended for young adult and adult readers, as well as any reader interested in American cultural history.”

    Catholic Library World

  • "There is much in this book to savor.  Written with a loving hand, it offers a warm understanding of two ethnic groups that eventually came to accept each other."

  •  “[…] Moses’s deep intimacy with New York and his unique blend of social history, sociology, biography, and autobiography distinguish this book from the otherwise excellent historical scholarship with which it engages.  Historians of New York City, Irish and Italian immigration, and American Catholicism should seek out An Unlikely Union.”

    Journal of Jesuit Studies

  • "Moses, a Brooklyn College journalism professor and former Newsday reporter and editor, brings to his subject a reporter’s instinct for a good story (including his own) and a professor’s skill in mining and interpreting historical records. The result is a thoroughly engaging and eminently readable account of the people and institutions that helped shape Irish-Italian relations."

    —James Hannan, Commonweal

  • "Even the future saint, an Italian, Mother Frances Cabrini, and the Irish Archbishop of New York, Michael Corrigan, argued and couldn't at first get along. The Irish and Italians here in America shared a common faith and hope, but, sometimes charity only came later! What a colorful chronicle of the spice, diversity, yet unity, of the Catholic community, and the magic of America."

    —Cardinal Timothy Michael Dolan, Archbishop of New York

  • "A wonderful, important book. Paul Moses does a masterful job explaining the complex relationship between two ethnic groups that helped define New York City in the 19th and 20th centuries. With great research and a writer's touch, he tells a story that every New Yorker—and would-be New Yorker—needs to know."

    —Terry Golway, author of The Irish in America

  • “Delivers nothing less than a revelation on every page: clashing cardinals and brawling bootblacks; torrid love affairs ignited on picket lines; distant revolutions launched, nurtured, and suppressed from New York tenements and parish halls. Unforgettable characters from two mighty tribes of New York, the Irish and the Italians, are woven into this astonishing, wonderful book by one of the city's greatest reporters. In Paul Moses's pitch-perfect prose, the human history of New York comes alive as never before. And not a moment too soon: the untold sagas and struggles of the Irish and the Italians, their journeys from rumbles to romance, are being lived again today and will be tomorrow by other newcomers.”

    —Jim Dwyer, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist

  • "An Unlikely Union is an unlikely success. Moses weaves together the histories and struggles of New York’s Irish and Italians across the past two centuries, offering fresh insights and fresh research. It is a vivid history of conflict, with many episodes that will be familiar to people whose families have lived some part of it; and then it turns into a romance mediated by food, religion, and burning proximity.  It is a Shakespearean tale, with occasional episodes of Romeo and Juliet, but the overarching plot of Much Ado about Nothing, where the intense mutual distaste of the hero and heroine turns into an equally intense and enduring bond."

    —Robert Viscusi, general editor, American edition of Italoamericana: The Literature of the Great Migration

  • "The masses of Italian immigrants who arrived in New York City in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries found Irish Americans everywhere in charge: as cops and robbers, saints and sinners, and wary gatekeepers of nearly all the occupations the newcomers hoped to pursue. By Paul Moses’s delightfully insightful, warm, and witty account, ethnic tribalism proved no match for enterprising immigrants who saw their opportunities and took them. From Paolo Vaccarelli—who as Paul Kelly insinuated himself deep into the heart of the city’s political and labor establishments before reclaiming his original identity—to Francis Albert Sinatra, who far surpassed his Irish-American musical 'foreman' Tommy Dorsey, Italian-Americans forged a 'mixed marriage' with the Irish that transformed both communities."

    —James T. Fisher, author of On the Irish Waterfront